What are the origins of the dreidel?…ask the rabbi

December 5, 2016 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi  Raymond Apple provides answers  on questions relating to Judaism…


Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Q. Keeping the commandments seems to put you in a cage which gives you no freedom. You have to obey or else. How can Judaism demand this?

A. Emmanuel Levinas used this analogy when he said that to take refuge in moral or ritual codes is to abdicate responsibility. (Martin Buber said, “Religion no longer shapes but enslaves religiosity”).

But the person who lives by the mitzvot doesn’t feel like this at all.

It is true that without the codes you have more freedom of movement – you don’t have to pray, you don’t have to limit what you eat, what you wear, what you do on Shabbat, or whether you have a mezuzah on your door.

The problem comes when you have had your fling and your life doesn’t seem to be leading anywhere.

Having a set of traditions to honour gives you fixed points and endows the days and weeks with personality and colour. But more than this, the life of mitzvot is a constant series of symbols that indicate the principles that you serve.

In the words of Eliezer Berkovits, you are “governed by a fixed set of moral values”, such as “k’vod hab’riyyot”, human dignity, and “dar’kei shalom”, “the ways of peace”.

You might say that it is precisely there that the cage analogy is to be found, in the existence of a (cage-like) “fixed set of moral values”.

Why, you might argue, does one have to be controlled by values that are fixed?

Let me challenge you: find better values. Or tell me why fixed values are necessarily inferior.

Work it out, and I suspect that you will come back to Berkovits’ way of thinking before long.


Q. What is the purpose of playing with a dreidel?

A. The dreidel (“sevivon” in Hebrew) or spinning top is a favourite Chanukah game, despite the Jewish ambivalence towards gambling.

Some link this pastime to the tradition that one should not study or work whilst watching the Chanukah lights.

There is also a significance in the fact that the four sides of the top bear the Hebrew letters “nun”, “gimel”, “heh”, “shin” – short for “nes gadol hayah sham”, “a great miracle happened there”, which proclaims the power of the hand of God in history.

It truly was a miracle when the tiny band of Maccabees and their followers overpowered the might of the enemy.

A similar miracle happened so often in history when overwhelming odds were defeated by the indomitable spark of faith and determination.


Q. Joshua’s father’s name is “Nun”. What does it mean?

A. It actually means a fish, from a root that means to sprout or flourish (e.g. Psalm 72:17).

“Nun” is also the 14th letter of the aleph-bet; the original shape of the letter was like a fish with a tail. Another word from the same root is “nin”, progeny (e.g. Gen. 21:23).

It is also possible that “bin-nun” means a disciple; Joshua was of course the leading disciple of Moses.

There are a number of Biblical references to Joshua as the son of Nun, though Joshua himself was originally Hoshea (Num. 13:8, 16).

In I Chron. 7, we not only learn that Nun was the father of Joshua but he himself was the son of Elishama, a prince from the tribe of Ephraim. (It may be only a coincidence, but Ephraim also comes from a Hebrew root that means to be fruitful).

Why Elishama named his son Nun probably has nothing to do with the idea of a fish. It is more likely to be a prayer that though Nun the tribe would be blessed with posterity.

Rabbi  Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.

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